Special announcement: Buy a book, help build a volunteer movement!

Hi all!

If you’ve been meaning to get your hands on “Love in Translation” or would like to give it as a gift this holiday season, please consider ordering a copy to benefit the Costa Rica Corps this year.

For every $25 payment to help us build a new, virtual volunteer movement to benefit Costa Rican communities, I’ll ship a copy of my book anywhere in the United States, Canada, or Costa Rica. I’ll also sign copies sent within Costa Rica, with any dedication you specify! Reader in Costa Rica have been asking me for many months how they can get their hands on a copy. Well, I’m finally ready to get to the post office for you!

Please check out the link below for more info and to order a copy, and please share with anyone else who might like to participate. Purchases can be made by PayPal, check or SINPE Móvil; orders must be received by Nov. 20 to guarantee Christmas delivery (well, “guarantee” as best we can, with the years our respective Post Offices have had! The sooner, the better…)


Thank you in advance for your support. The Costa Rica Corps is a volunteer movement through and through, but this support will jumpstart our efforts to launch new volunteer pathways and opportunities starting in January 2021!

I run the virtual volunteer community Costa Rica Corps and am the co-founder of the new, bilingual media organization El Colectivo 506. I also work as a freelance grantwriter, fundraiser, and communications coach, and write essays, articles and books. I live in San José with my husband and daughter. Sign up at top right to receive an essay in your inbox each Sunday morning: a chance to dominguear together (a lovely word that literally means, “to Sunday,” and describes a leisurely trip or ramble). We’ll explore a project, changemaker, community, or idea I’ve come across, or just watch the world go by. See you next Sunday!

On marriage and diamonds

In our first year of marriage, my true love gave to me a yigüírro in an orange tree.

Don’t worry – I won’t continue. That would be silly. By no means will I tell you that he also gave to me two empanadas, three Rock Ice, four chicharrones, fiiiiive Meeeeega Triiiiiits, six monkeys pooping, seven dolphins swimming, eight sloths a-slothin’, nine comparsas drumming, ten egg salesman megaphoning, eleven ladies dancing (at Castro’s), and twelve micheladas.

As we approached our twelfth wedding anniversary, I kept thinking about that first one on my list and how simple it was. We were renting a little house with an orange tree in the yard, and, yes, a yigüírro in that orange tree, more than once. Costa Rica’s national bird would wake us up with its calls for rain during those hot, dry days of late summer. We owned more things than the yigüírro did, but not all that much more. We could flit around the city on a Saturday, aimless. In fact, that was our favorite thing to do.

We marry, and then we add things on top of it, whatever “it” is. We add years, possessions, meals, logistics. Maybe a home. Maybe actual additional humans, if we so choose, and are lucky.

As averse to change as I am, I don’t think all of this is necessarily a bad thing, and I’m not sure we can avoid it. If we had sworn to each other, in our wedding vows, never to give each other anything more than a yigüírro in an orange tree which wasn’t ours anyway – never to complicate our lives further than those vows and perhaps a shared lease – I think we still would have piled something on top. The strains and ups and downs of our jobs, perhaps. Trips we would have taken. Obligations we might have acquired with the time and energy we might have conserved in the absence of a kid jumping up and down on our bed at dawn.

Even when we try to stay in place, as steady as a rocky shore like the ones where my mother lives in Maine, the years have a way of bringing flotsam and jetsam along with them and depositing them in front of us.

A while ago, I started thinking about marriage and diamonds. We so often give and receive them at the start of a marriage – a shining symbol of everlasting love, or something like that – but that’s the wrong metaphor. The right metaphor is the way that diamonds are made: a whole lot of crap compressed over time, and under immense amounts of pressure and heat that form unbreakable bonds. The diamond in an engagement ring isn’t a symbol of what you already have. It’s a manual for what you are going to try to make.

That’s why I don’t think it’s such a bad thing to layer all kinds of crap on top of your marriage vows. I think that’s how it works. Phone bills, dinner dates, lost socks, birthdays exceptional and mundane and bad, small arguments over small things, massive arguments over small things, wrenching discussions of potentially life-changing things – all of it goes in the mix, and then the pressure of life bears down over time. Doesn’t that sound delightful? But they warned us. It’s all there in the manual.

That’s just how a diamond is made.

And the thing is, those diamonds are beautiful. I won’t go into detail, because I’m from New England, and already display far too much emotion for my own good. If I add a thick layer of cheesiness and self-congratulation, a gang of disapproving matrons will arrive at my door, lips in a thin line, to wash my mouth out with rhubarb and make me can blueberries or something. But you know what I mean. In the moments where all those hours and days and long lines and blissful vacation mornings and indecipherable tax forms – all that carbon, which, after all, is what we are – get compressed into something much stronger than either of the two of you, it makes your breath catch.

That’s what it’s all for. We start with just a hope, a piece of paper, some intangible “it,” and watch it become something real. That’s one thing I learned as my father’s life came to an end: that the bond between my parents was not an idea, or a feeling. It was practically a solid object. It was almost visible. I could feel it running through me as I stood between them in a church pew for the last time, for example. We could all see the glint of it as we gathered around them during those unforgettable final days. It made my breath catch. It still does, right now.

It had been forged under the ordinary and extraordinary pressures of life over 52 years.

None of this is exclusive to marriage, or to marriages that last. It can happen anytime we hold on to another person over time and through the heat of life. It stands to reason that divorces can create some absolutely spectacular diamonds. Sisters and brothers, parents and kids, neighbors. Some friendships, although other friendships are the equivalent of walking down the street and picking a fully formed, perfectly polished diamond up off the ground, just like that, nothing to be added or taken away. Sometimes, there’s just a freebie. Maybe some marriages are like that, too – perfect and unchanging from the start – although I’m not sure I’ve ever seen one that wasn’t on a page or a screen.

None of this takes away our yearning, now and then, for the lightness with which we started. That’s what anniversaries are for, and birthdays, and all those celebrations. They remind us of simplicity. We set aside these jewels from deep in the earth and deep in our hearts and put on a flower ring instead, a bruised stem wrapped around our finger that keeps coming loose. We might eat a Ticoburguesa. We might kick up our heels, take an aimless walk. It’s what we always do, as humans: juggle and juggle that unbearable lightness and breath-catching depth of our being.

I’m a writer in San José, Costa Rica, on a year-long quest to share daily posts on inspiring people, places and ideas from my adopted home as a kind of tonic during a rough time in the world. Sign up (top right of this page) to receive a little dose of inspiration every weekday in your mailbox; tell a friend; check out past posts; and please connect with me on Instagram or Facebook! You can also find me churning out small, square poems on any topic under the sun (here on the site, on Instagram or Twitter). 

Day 54: A throwback to my favorite thankful trick of the tongue

It’s Thanksgiving, and I think a #throwbackthursday is in order, because one of the first essays I wrote on Costa Rican slang remains my favorite. I wrote it in 2014, the second of my columns that later became “Love in Translation.” I hope the day brings you something cozy, something delicious and plenty to be thankful for. What a nice word, thankful.

The amazing true story of brete and tuanis

On this Thanksgiving Day, here are three things that have me feeling grateful.

The first is, well, you, for sending so many kind and interesting responses to my first column. I heard from homesick Ticos living abroad, fellow expats in Costa Rica who are as enamored of the country as I am, and people who have never lived here at all but whose Costa Rican parents fed them a steady diet of dichos y refranes since birth.

I also learned a lot from you, as I knew I would, leading to the second thing I’m grateful for: finally understanding the origins of the word tuanis (that classic costarriqueñismo, or so I thought, meaning good, cool, great). Bear with me here. I learned from a reader’s Facebook comment, followed by a highly rigorous Google search, that the Costa Rican tendency to switch the syllables of its words – primo becomes moprifiesta becomes tafies – has its roots in Nicaraguan malespín. This is a specific type of slang apparently based on a code created by Salvadoran General Francisco Malespín, whose military exploits took him around the region (including to Nicaragua, where he sacked León) and who also served as president of El Salvador in the 1840s. In his code, the syllables of words are rearranged and vowels are switched around: “a” for “e,” “i” for “o,” “b” for “t,” “f” for “g” and “p” for “m,” and vice versa. At any rate, try this for the word bueno – “b” becomes “t,” “e” becomes “a,” “o” becomes “i.” What does that spell? Yup, tuani, which became tuanis during its southward migration to Costa Rica. It seems that this emblematic Tico word has a fascinating Central American tale to tell.

Here’s another classic malespín-ismo. Take the word trabajo (work), switch the syllables around and switch each “a” for an “e,” the “o” for an “i.” You get breteji, eventually shortened to brete, the slang for work that has become one of my favorite words over the past 10 years. Its fascinating origins are only one of the great things about it. I love its Spanglish-tastic variant, breteanding, and there’s something uniquely satisfying about breteada, a huge mountain of work, as in “Vieras que breteada me pegué anoche.” Just saying it makes you breathe out a little knot of tension: bre-te-AHHH-da. Most of all, however, I love the attitude adjustment the word brete has given me during my time in Costa Rica, because  it’s so often tied to the concept of gratitude.

For example, you might hear: “I’d love to stay, but I have so much to do. Mucho brete. Gracias a Dios.”

“I was up all night working, and now I have a triple shift. I just taped my eyelids open and drank three quarts of coffee. Mucho brete. Gracias a Dios.”

“My boss is the worst. I wouldn’t mind feeding her limb by limb into a wood chipper. But hey, tengo brete, gracias a Dios.”

In a Catholic country, this turn of phrase might be a reflex for many. You can tell that it’s sometimes more of a linguistic habit than a heartfelt sentiment. But as a foreigner and a person who almost never says “Thank God,” it was jarring to me at first – then eye-opening. Over the years, it has become a powerful reality check. In any country, in any culture, those of us with the outrageous good fortune to find employment whenever we need it run the risk of forgetting what a privilege it is to put food on the table. Those of us who have only known the stress of over-employment forget how much more stressful it is to be under-employed. I don’t say gracias a Dios myself – it would feel insincere – but the simple act of hearing it again and again has made me stop myself, on a good day, in the midst of a complaint or a rant. And it means that for me, brete is not just a word. It’s a reminder.

So as I prepare for my eleventh [now 15th!] Thanksgiving in the land of tuanis; as I anticipate another feast that will feature a last-minute expat ingredient substitution no matter how much I plan; as I get ready to put on some soccer as I cook and pretend it’s the background noise of the football game I only crave one day each year… as I do all that, I am grateful for you. I am grateful for the strangeness of a world where a general who destroyed a city also created a new way of speaking, and where a country that abolished its army communicates in a centuries-old military code. Last but not least, I’m grateful for – well, I’d tell you, except I’ve gotta run, because vieras que montón de brete tengo que hacer hoy.

Gracias a Dios.

I’m a writer in San José, Costa Rica, on a year-long quest to share daily posts on inspiring people, places and ideas from my adopted home as a kind of tonic during a rough time in the world. Sign up (top right of this page) to receive a little dose of inspiration every weekday in your mailbox; tell a friend; check out past posts; and please connect with me on Instagram or Facebook! You can also find me churning out small, square poems on any topic under the sun (here on the site, on Instagram or Twitter). 

Day 42: An artist who makes me smile every week

When I found out that artist Priscilla Aguirre was going to illustrate my book in 2016, I smiled from ear to ear – and ever since, glimpsing her new creations on social media has been a regular pleasure of mine.

Aguirre’s distinctive style and brand, Holalola, grew out of her desire to showcase a side of Costa Rica’s beauty that isn’t often captured in postcards: the taxis, neighborhoods and idiosyncrasies of San José and other communities. These days, you can find Holalola posters, mugs, aprons and more, commemorating all seven provinces, Costa Rican traditions and much more. She’s even branched out into agendas and dolls.

Follow Priscilla and Holalola on Facebook and Instagram for happy, colorful boosts of Costa Rica anytime – and visit her online store or shop in Barrio Dent if you want to see more.

I’m a writer in San José, Costa Rica, on a year-long quest to share daily posts on inspiring people, places and ideas from my adopted home as a kind of tonic during a rough time in the world. Sign up (top right of this page) to receive a little dose of inspiration every weekday in your mailbox; tell a friend; check out past posts; and please connect with me on Instagram or Facebook! You can also find me churning out small, square poems on any topic under the sun (here on the site, on Instagram or Twitter). 

An interview about ‘Love’

This was an amazing week and I’m so grateful to you for your comments and shares! Earlier this year, Tico Times Managing Editor (and fellow writer-mom) Jill Replogle asked me some great questions about Costa Rica, writing, juggling family and the immigrant vs. expat debate. The TT published the interview on Monday and I’m proud to share it here as well. 

…Stanley, 37, arrived in Costa Rica in 2004 and has worked as a reporter, editor, speechwriter and freelance writer, as well as in a variety of roles in the nonprofit sector. After the birth of her daughter in San José in 2013, she began writing about Costa Rican language and culture, both on her personal blog, The Dictionary of You, and in a popular Tico Times column called Maeology. Many of these writings are included in the new book, which follows our Publications Group’s first title, “The Green Season,” by Robert Isenberg (2015).

“Love in Translation” has garnered praise for former President Oscar Arias, former First Lady Henrietta Boggs, author Carlos Arauz and National Culture Award-Winner María Mayela Padilla, who says it offers “a valuable lesson: that our language and culture are rich and worthy of preservation. We must carry in our souls the pride of being Costa Rican, just the way we are.”

We asked Stanley a few questions about the book, now available for delivery within Costa Rica from The Tico Times Store, and around the world on Amazon.

In your words, what is this book about?

I’m a New Englander, and we don’t throw the word “love” around a whole lot, but that’s really what it’s about and why it ended up in the title: love of the way Costa Rica talks and thinks, love of the country in general, and how that eventually grew into my family…  My view of the book has changed a little bit throughout 2016, which has been a hard year for lots of people in different ways. I hope it provides a little escape for readers but also a testament to the beauty that is created when different cultures meet and when people move beyond their own borders, literally and emotionally.

Tells us a little about the format of the book and the material that makes it up.

The blog it grew from, which I started as an outlet for all the thoughts whizzing around my brain when I was home with my baby daughter, was called “The Dictionary of You,” because my original idea was to write one letter to my daughter for every letter of the alphabet, looking at a Costa Rican phrase or expression that started with that letter.

That’s basically how it is set up: “a” is for “antiguo higuerón,” the once-and-future fig tree that looms so large in Costa Rican direction-giving, and the essay explores getting lost as a new arrival. “B” is for “breteanding,” a Spanglish spin you sometimes hear on “brete,” or work. And so on. These alternate with brief journal entries that trace my 12 years in Costa Rica and how my life changed along the way.

A lot of your writing, especially your Maeology column for The Tico Times, is centered on language and Costa Rican slang. How has understanding Costa Rican Spanish helped you understand Costa Rica?

The two have gone hand in hand the whole way. For one thing, my husband, Adrián, uses slang constantly, so starting to understand it was a key part of dating him and falling in love with him and his country. And to me, the process of understanding a language runs parallel to the process of understanding a country. You hear a phrase you don’t understand and someone explains it – fine – but it might be years later that the real meaning sinks into your bones, the philosophy behind it, what it represents. I expect that process to continue forever, just about.

When you were putting together this book and looked back at journal entries from your first years in Costa Rica, what struck you about the way you perceived the country and your place in it compared to now?

I think back to those early days in the country so often – they were so formative for me, so indedibly inked on my brain – that there weren’t really any big surprises, to be honest.

What’s your favorite Costa Rican dicho or slang term?

Manda huevo. Untranslatable, essential, so expressive. I am often very critical when native speakers of English, including me, sprinkle Spanish into their conversation with other English speakers – sometimes it’s done in a “oh, my Spanish is just so good that I can’t remember the English words anymore” kind of way – but manda huevo is one phrase I do sometimes use when I’m speaking English because there’s just no equivalent.

The letters to your daughter included in the book started as a blog that you began writing at a time when most people stop doing anything other than surviving: you had a new baby and multiple demanding jobs, and you were living in a city notorious for long commute times and frequent traffic jams. How and why did you decide to take up this project and continue to make the time to keep up with it?

It was actually an unusually quiet time in my life. I did juggle a lot of work from home, but I was still going very long stretches without exchanging a single word out loud with another adult. As any new parent can attest, when I did speak, it was usually to my husband, and those weren’t exactly quality conversations. My husband worked nights. I would put our daughter to bed and the house would be so exquisitely quiet; my brain would be so full of things I wanted to tell her. The blog just sort of spilled out of that. I see so many new moms start blogs, and I think it comes from that same kind of feeling: you have this new urgency to all the things you want to say, but the person you most want to hear them is not capable of listening yet. And you write.

You’ve raised your child almost entirely in Costa Rica thus far, but what have you found surprising about raising a child here that seems different in the United States?

That’s a big part of the book, too, and hard to sum up. I’ve been surprised by how kind and accommodating people are here, including in professional situations – I can’t really compare it to the States, since I’ve never had a kid there, but from what I gather from friends, I am fortunate in that sense. And on the sillier side, I was surprised to find that no matter what your baby is wearing, you will always be told to put more clothing on her. Always.

What do you hope your daughter learns from her bicultural upbringing?

That’s a great question. I’ve never really thought of it quite that way – I tend to think of all the benefits of a bicultural upbringing as a huge bonus, like that’s a given, and then worry about what I hope she doesn’t get from it. Like, I hope it doesn’t make her feel rootless or lonely. But what I hope she does get from it: sensitivity, I guess, and an appreciation for other people’s complexities. I hope, for example, that she will be slower to judge an immigrant, or a person learning a new language, or a person trying to fit in, because she will have been exposed to a lot of people in that category. Of course, it could go the other way and she could move in between cultures so easily that she is arrogant about that ability.

Do you consider yourself an expat? And have your thoughts about that word and concept changed over time? 

I consider myself an immigrant, although that’s a whole topic all its own and a column I’ve been meaning to write. When you look up a definition of either term, they both apply to me and in fact are pretty much interchangeable on the page, but in real life they have so much baggage and so many connotations.

The fact that I came here more or less on a lark, with a lot of educational and economic privilege that allowed me to hit the ground running as a teacher and then a reporter, would suggest that maybe I should be called an expat, and I haven’t had to face all the challenges that many immigrants face and for which they deserve so much respect. However, I have also made a life here and integrated, or sometimes failed to integrate, often in entertaining ways. Now I’ve put down some pretty serious roots here, and feel that I am an immigrant.

Of course, just the fact that I get to choose how to define myself represents a huge level of privilege. I guess I also use the term because I am so angry about the negative way it is being used in the United States, and am conscious that we apply it to most any foreigner with no regard for that person’s story. Basically I just wish we, especially in the United States, could free “immigrant” from some of its baggage and celebrate the incredible diversity that the word carries with it.